By Adekunle Adekoya, Deputy Editor & Dayo Johnson
Elder statesman, icon of the legal profession and university entrepreneur, Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, is an engaging personality; an enigma of sorts. A nonagenarian, there are not many in his age belt that enjoy the kind of health he enjoys.
He remains spry, mentally alert, and does not wear eye-glasses. He made points and buttressed them with references from books and journals which he brought out and read without glasses. In the public domain, he is known to be 92, with an October 30, 1929 birth date. But Aare Babalola, in all probability, is older than that.
“You see, by 1937 when I enrolled in primary school, I could already do 200 yam heaps on my father’s farm. I do not think an eight-year old could do that. The age is more than that,” he said. A self-made man, Chief Babalola did not get formal education beyond the primary level, but strove to self-educate himself, eventually earning degrees, first in Economics, and later, Law.
In the first part of this interview below, he assessed the state of the nation, gave an insight to what is responsible for the growing divide between the North and the South, what is best for Nigeria between secession and restructuring, assessment of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure and his position on Yoruba Nation agitators.
He also canvassed the position that Nigeria should have a new constitution before the 2023 election, adding that what should be done is replace the constitution in use now with the 1960 or 1963 Republican Constitution, insisting that the National Assembly is wasting time and resources in its bid to amend the constitution.
Nigeria is challenged on many fronts. What’s your advice for our leaders and followers, especially the youths?
The problem we have is that people do not appreciate that there was no Nigeria until 1884 when the Europeans who described Africa as a dark continent met in Berlin to partition Africa among themselves for their selfish interests without consulting them.
In doing so, the enclave known as Nigeria today was given to Britain as if we are slaves, as if we are yams, and it consists of over 400 different languages, tribes and whatever.
I must thank and I bless the memory of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who was also a self-trained person. He trained himself, and Awolowo, a great man, Aminu Kano, Enahoro and others, all of whom fought for our independence.
Between 1950 and 1960, these people went to England several times with other leaders to find out how these numerous nations in the enclave can work together and eventually can become a nation.
A country is not necessarily a nation, but a country can become a nation depending on how you can make people believe that they can work together.
READ ALSO: Nigeria on the precipice — Afe Babalola
Germany has many tribes, Switzerland, Canada the same thing. But until there is the will and desire to be a nation, a nation cannot emerge from a country that consists of many nations.
Look at the outcome of the long meetings held over 10 years in England which led to Independence in 1960. They agreed that we have different tongues or whatever, yet we can become one.
They appreciated that. North, South, West appreciated it and decided on a federal constitution which allowed each part to develop at its own rate. It allows each part to develop its own culture but at the same time run together as a country and then you will become proud of yourself.
That was how we came with the 1960 constitution, a federal constitution with regions; later it became four regions with mid-west.
Things were going on very well with us. Western Region was leading with Chief Awolowo, doing everything that was possible to make us grow. If the military did not come, Western Region would have caught up with Britain.
The problem we had was the military. The military believes in central power, central way of doing things. They believe in central control, and that is the problem of Buhari himself. He was trained to be a soldier. He wasn’t trained to be a lawyer or trained to be a medical officer. He is used to central control.
When the army was going back to the barracks, they gave us a constitution which again made the centre so strong that the so-called states were no more than mere servants who used to collect money at the end of the month.
They destroyed local government completely. I was a councillor before, that was in 1964 or 1965. We were not paid; we wanted to help. All of us were either lawyers or doctors and so on. We didn’t take a kobo.
Under the parliamentary system too at that time, members of the house didn’t take a kobo. There were only taking sitting allowances, no salary. They were ready and willing go serve. The problem we have is the central control through the constitution. Unless something is done about that, we can never make it again.
In fact, Nigeria may not exist if we do not change the constitution to parliamentary system within the next few years.
Look at your external and internal debt. Look how much we are using to service the debt. Very soon we will have nothing left other than servicing debt. Where do you go?
You won’t have money to be paying interest itself, you will be servicing loans. My advice is that the earlier we call a Sovereign National Conference the better, and the earlier we return to parliamentary system, the better. That will do away with the so-called leaders who are doing nothing but business.
At 61, do you think Nigeria has attained nationhood?
After Independence, every additional year is a year backward in development. There has been backward development since the military took over.
Before they took over, we had Nigeria Airways, shipping line, first class railway system. Where are they? At that time too the Naira was stronger than a dollar but equal to a pound. What do we have today? At that time, there was no poverty in this country.
If you go out today and you want to enter your car, you will see somebody well-dressed, begging for money, saying that he has not eaten since morning.
In my time when I was young, there was no begging in this place. The cattle rearers were friendly people at that time. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
Usually, horses, cattle are owned by businessmen and they gave them to these boys to go and rear and we adopted nomadic system of rearing cattle in 2021. It is a disgrace
What do you think is responsible for the growing divide between the North and the South?
That is a difficult question. I think it is the issue of cattle rearing. The South does not believe that they should give land to the owner of cattle to settle. They all believe that cattle rearing is a business like poultry, piggery, fishery and so on.
If you want to do poultry in the North or anywhere in Nigeria, all you have to do is acquire land. If you want to do piggery, acquire land and that is it. It is a business. The owners of these cattle are rich people.
Almost all the states in the South are making laws about it. I think they are right. Let me say with all the strength within me that the nomadic system of rearing cattle is outdated. There is no country that allows cattle to roam about and graze the crops of farmers.
In any case, in this country before, the cattle rearers didn’t allow their cattle to go into farms, they used to go along narrow paths and we used to give them food to eat. They were friendly but now they carry guns.
Look at what they have done to a state like Benue State, the food basket of Nigeria. All that the President ought to do was to denounce them. I listened to the President saying that he would direct the Attorney-General to look for a gazette made by the white men which allowed them to follow certain routes throughout the country.
Assuming there were routes, are they not already built with houses? In my weekly column I made it clear that there was no such gazette. I did my research, there was no such gazette. You can now see that the Southerners could and should infer from the President statement that he is supporting these people.
He is saying that they have the right to do so. Look at the appointments made. You have the federal constitution which states specifically that you must follow federal character.
There has been agitation for secession, separation, restructuring. As an elder that has seen a lot first-hand in the political development of Nigeria, what should be the best option for Nigeria to grow now?
In his book in 1966, Awolowo said that since Nigeria is a multilingual and multinational country per excellence, the only constitution that is suitable for her peculiar circumstances is a federal constitution.
In 2001, I went to Port Harcourt where I was invited to deliver a lecture. I asked: Is Nigeria a myth or a reality? I said I’m a Yoruba first before being a Nigerian, and I do not know a Nigerian who is a Nigerian first before being from his ethnic group.
The best way is to run a true federal constitution properly so called. It is then that nationhood would arise. Nigeria is not a nation today. Nigeria was likely to have become one if we had followed the 1960 or 1963 constitution, but unfortunately like I said earlier, the military came.
They didn’t really destroy the 1963 constitution, they suspended it. When the military was going, the only thing they could have done was to return it to when it was before.
Rather than do that, they sat down in their rooms, drafted a constitution which concentrates power again in the centre. That is our problem today.
I have said it, do not let us conduct the next election under the 1999 constitution. Let us have a new constitution before the next election whereby we would have new rules about who can become a member of the legislature, age wise, qualification, past record, evidence that you are a nationalist, evidence that you have contributed to the development of the country, you have your own business not politics, politics should not be a lucrative business.
The constitution will also provide that there will be no salary for anybody who is a member of parliament, you will only take allowances per term only. And then, we need only one legislature, we don’t need too many legislatures. We are spending too much money in running government.
That has been my advice and I still stand by it, unless we do that peace is far away from us, may we not go to war. May we not have a case like Tigray in Ethiopia. We must avoid such a situation.
That is why I went all out when I was launching my Industrial Park, presided over by His Royal Highness, the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi. I said look gentle men, I pray that all we have achieved will not be destroyed in the name of Nigeria. I therefore suggested that we have what I described as Summit of Hope.
That summit of Hope should be convened by the Ooni who will bring all the important Obas, all former presidents, former governors among other people to discuss the way forward. I have invested money to start it. I have even donated my beautiful assembly hall. The Sultan of Sokoto and many other people have agreed to this Summit of Hope.
I do not know whether it will go on yet, but I hope it will go on because that is the only way. We have to sit down at the end of the day and discuss the future of this country.
There and then we must agree to go back to what our forefathers agreed to in London which gave birth to the 1960 constitution. That is the way out in my interest, your interest and the interest of those coming after us. The earlier the better.
About the separatist agitations in the country, couldn’t it be better managed?
What leads to agitation for regions, sections and so on is nothing but the fact that people are unemployed, people are poor, people are unsafe on the farms, in their homes, on the streets, on the road, and people now say, would it not be better to go back to what we were before.
Most of the people knew what life was during the parliamentary system of government which we had between 1960 and 1966, they knew. And they know what happened in other countries too.
Nobody who is happy, contented and doing well in the country would want to leave the country not to talk of secession. People react to problems in different ways.
So in one way, they have a case against the government, the way it is run. Some feel that why don’t we have to go away. I do not believe that is the best solution.
When Biafra wanted to secede, you knew what happened. Today, you want to secede from somebody who does not want you to secede and has all the ammunition, you are directly inviting another Tigray of Ethiopia in Nigeria.
You cannot fight against the man who has all the ammunition by the way they are doing. The best way to me and I repeat it, is to have a meeting of well-meaning, highly-respected Nigerians. And some of them have been saying what I’m saying, it is not new, so that we can have a new constitution.
Those in the parliament are not ready to pass the resolution because they are benefitting from the rots. So we have a very dicey situation. Praying alone cannot help, that is not the answer. God doesn’t help people who want to destroy themselves.
I appeal once more to the Ooni; I know he is working on it, the Sultan, who is also working on it already and to others. They should be the people to convene the meeting of these other retired presidents and so on and so forth, and people like you journalists will be there.
There are many Nigerians who want Nigeria to remain one. So let us get them to talk to the President who obviously because of his upbringing as a military man does not believe in parliamentary government.
After all, he was invited by the National Assembly to discuss security. Once, he said he was going but later he said his Attorney-General advised him not to go and yet the house knew their powers.
Instead of insisting or threaten to impeach him on security, they refused to do so because majority of them are in his party. If these people are elected again under this same constitution, Nigeria will break up at that time.
Former President Obasanjo is your very good friend. Nigerians believe that he had a golden opportunity that he didn’t utilize well in terms of restoring the country when he was in the saddle. Are there things you think he could have done or think he shouldn’t have done at all?
Well, President Obasanjo is the best we have had since the military took over. When he took over, Nigeria was in debt. He knew the importance of foreign debt because it means we won’t have enough foreign money to buy and so on and so forth.
He knew it will have effect on the value of naira. What did he do? He went round to Paris and other places. He was going on this journey and Gani Fawehinmi sued him to court that the reason he was going round was because he wanted his estacode. I defended Obasanjo on that, that it was not correct.
He succeeded and the Paris club wrote off our debt. We went back to normal. It was during his time that the amount being voted for education increased because the law is that you should vote 26 per cent of all your revenue for education.
I told him in confidence we should do something about the 1999 constitution because I saw that it was not the constitution of the people, I saw that the constitution lied when it said it was made by the people, and in any case, it has abrogated the 1960 constitution which allowed regions to develop at their own rate and so on, now it centralizes power to the centre. I have said it, it is in my book too. That is the only area where we disagreed.
So, when he decided about two, three years ago that Nigerians want a new constitution, I wrote an article and I said congratulations, Obasanjo, for agreeing now. He had the opportunity at that time to do so.
If he had done so, we won’t be in the mess we are now. He is now part of us, he wants a new constitution. So, his sins must be forgiven.
To let you know that I disagree with him, as far back as 2001, I wrote an article on the need for a new constitution. I was one of the first people to write an article on it. We did a lecture on it and attended by great people in Port Harcourt.
I always believe that there is need for restructuring, that is a new constitution. That can be achieved even now before the next election. We can have it if the president is serious, if the members of National Assembly are serious.
Gentlemen, I count on you to support my vision and my vision is we need a new constitution before the next election. It is easy to make. Go back to 1960 constitution with amendments and the amendment will be instead of three, four regions, let us have the geo-political zones and that will solve all our problems.
Then we amend the area which allows anybody to contest. We will amend the area which deals with different legislatures. We only need one legislature, fewer number of people, no salary, allowances.
The National Assembly members are currently amending the constitution and not talking about giving the country a new constitution. What’s your take on this?
I have written about that. They are wasting their time. They are not addressing the issue. Amendment in law means replacement too. They can replace, why are they amending?
If you are in court of law, you file an action, you file your claim, you can amend the claim by substituting a new one. So, instead of doing all that why don’t they substitute the 1960 constitution straight away with some amendments?
That is what I want to emphasise there. Instead of amending clauses, why don’t they amend the constitution to replace what is causing problem for this country which is over-centralization of power in the centre?
•EDITOR’S NOTE: The second part of the interview focuses on his foray into university entrepreneurship at the age of 80, when people normally don’t start any new thing or take risks. Don’t miss it. Coming your way on Thursday.